Contact Us

Donor Centric Fundraising - Interview with Tom Ahern

In this episode, Andrew visits with Tom Ahern, communications guru and author of six books, including How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money and What Your Donors Want and Why.  They discuss a variety of topics and strategies, all in the world of communications. Tom is a huge advocate for “donor centric” messaging and firmly believes that is the way to raising more money now and building long-term donor loyalty. 

Tom also shares his thoughts on some new research on “identity based fundraising” and how nonprofits can incorporate very simple changes into their communication pieces.

Show Notes:

It’s all in the execution.

Tom was a commercial marketer for 20 years through a variety of industries. He became involved with the non-profit world while helping his wife with her business.

He’s an avid reader and promotes the importance of learning from what’s available.

He saw a gap in the knowledge base of non-profit fundraising compared to his experience in commercial marketing. And discovered that “who’s your customer” was a question most non-profits couldn’t answer. The actual customer for fundraisers are the donors.

He talks about the hows and whys people make decisions, specifically, a purchase decision. What will move somebody to act?

Tom discusses the details of neurology and psychology and how that relates to interacting with your donors. How and why the heart leads decision making.

How did Tom get into the non-profit, donor-centric field?

Beginning with the changes that technology has brought to the human attention span. He talks about the study of the goldfish.

What Tom found was that fundraisers were trying to figure out how to do their work and not knowing how, they looked around and copied what others were doing. The problem in that is that you’re not bringing people what that want or need or crave.

People crave emotional gratification and a purpose in life. People need purpose. Something a charity can “sell” is a sense of purpose. But what’s being presented instead is, “look at what we’re doing.”

You have to deliver more than just, “we need money, will you help?” Most people that are giving are giving to more than just one charity. That means that the first gift is probably not going to be a large gift, if you are new to their “family” of charities. The second gift, if it exists is not going to be much larger. But what you need to do is give your donors an experience that brings that emotional gratification that they crave.

Identity Based Fundraising

Talk with older donors about their legacy.

Discusses the experimentation of having identity statements at the moment of giving. Example of statements on the giving page such as “I am giving because I believe in the work the organization is doing.”

Responsible fundraisers learn new things all the time.

Top three steps for someone just getting started:

  1. Ask the donor for help
  2. Thank the donor for help
  3. Report back to the donor what their impact was (is it happening and by the way - you are wonderful) to create an emotional connection

What you’re trying to do is build a family of true believers who are trying to get something done.

The only purpose for donor communication is to make the person feel good. It’s not about giving information. There is so much information in the world, we don’t need more. We need emotional connection.

What are you working on now?

The Case Writers, a mastermind of resources.

What does a communication audit look like? Asking where do you want to go/end up? Now discuss what’s good and what’s not working.


Has a house in France, his wife’s family is originally from France. Most of their books get written or at least outlined there.

Lightening Round

  1. If you could fund-raise for any organization at any time, what would it be?
    • The people that were behind the Freedom Riots, of the civil rights movement
  2. If you could get a donor meeting with anybody dead or alive, who would it be
    • Jesus
  3. Is there enough money out there for everybody?
    • Yes, there’s actually 10x as much. But you probably won’t get your hands on it for a variety of reasons.
  4. If you could go back in time and offer yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
    • The Verbatim Rule
  5. Who are three people who have influenced you the most in the fundraising world?
    • His wife, Mel Warwick, Adrian Sargent and Jen Chang
  6. Any regrets in changing careers?
    • No

And here are my three takeaways:

  1. Donor centric fundraising may sound like a complex concept, but in reality, it’s pretty simple to implement. I liked the suggestion Tom made about auditing your website to find all the “we’s” and rework them to “you”. In order for nonprofits to raise money and function, they have to view the donor as their customers. That may make sense to those of us in development, but it could be a challenge for our program counterparts. 
  2. Identity based fundraising. People give to organizations and causes that they feel deeply committed to, but also to organizations that they are connected with based on who they are and what their background is. And it was interesting to hear about the different levels of identity: species, social, emotional and ideal. I loved what Tom was saying about asking the passion questions on the remittances and the effect it has on giving. 
  3. Lastly, I really value the fact that research is being done in this area. There is a science to development and it’s wonderful to just hear what some of those findings are telling us. Many of us in development have the access to information within our own database to conduct analysis and learn what works. We’ve discussed A/B testing before, but that’s a simple way to conduct our own quantitative research. 

Action item: this one pretty much wrote itself, but I think that the best thing that you can do this week is to review your website for donor centric language. I’d take Toms advice and go through the site and find all the “we’s” and just count them. If you finish your website, review your past couple of appeals and newsletters for the same thing. 

If you want to connect with Tom, you can reach out to him at his new website

If you have questions, or want to share a success story, email me at [email protected] or send us a Facebook message. We’re always happy to help. God bless.


Book Recommendations:

What Your Donors Want and Why by Tom Ahern

If Only You'd Known by Tom Ahern

How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money by Tom Ahern

Red Teaming by Bryce Hoffman


Sign up below to receive tools, ideas, and inspiration to take your development efforts to the next level.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.